Home Artifacts Questions remain around the return of more than 50 ancient artifacts to Mexico

Questions remain around the return of more than 50 ancient artifacts to Mexico


Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) announced yesterday, September 14, that the country received more than 50 repatriated pre-Hispanic artifacts. The objects were “voluntarily returned” by citizens to Mexican embassies in Austria, Canada and Sweden and to Mexican consulates in Vancouver and Albuquerque, according to the INAH statement.

Among the artifacts were a Zapotec urn dating from around 600 to 900 CE and a pillar fragment from the Classic Maya archaeological site of Santa Rosa Xtampak. The hilltop site – located in the rainforest of the state of Campeche on the Yucatán Peninsula – is one of Mexico’s most impressive examples of Classic Maya architecture, and the upturned pillar was taken from the site’s most elaborate structure – the three-storey, eighth-century Le Palacio. The pillar fragment, first documented by an Austrian archaeologist in 1891, was recovered by the Mexican Embassy in Austria.

The pillar fragment was returned from Austria. (image courtesy of INAH)

In July, the Mexican government announced that nearly 3,000 artifacts had been returned to the nation over the past three years. In the same month, a family in Spain chose to repatriate 2,522 pre-Hispanic objects to Mexico, and last year the Mexican Embassy in Berlin orchestrated the voluntary return of 34 objects. It is unclear whether the most recent objects returned to Mexico were previously housed in private or public collections or elsewhere, and INAH did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for additional information regarding the nature of the return.

The front facade of El Palacio in Santa Rosa Xtampak (via Wikimedia Commons)

While these voluntary restitutions provide a silver lining in the tangled repatriation disputes occurring in institutions around the world, global auction houses have continued to sell pre-Hispanic Mexican artifacts in recent years, often drawing heavy criticism from from the government of the country.

In February 2021, INAH attempted to prevent Christie’s from auctioning more than 30 pre-Hispanic objects; in September last year, Mexico’s culture secretary tried to stop an auction in Munich; and in November, Mexico failed to stop two auctions of pre-Hispanic artifacts in Paris.

The objects are now at the INAH in Mexico City. (image courtesy of INAH)

The new Mexican batch of returned objects is now kept at the INAH in Mexico City, where they will be subjected to analysis and conservation.

“These are testimonies of the peoples who made and used them,” INAH said. “Each object tells us a story that helps us understand our identity as a nation.”